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President Barack Obama is hoping that lessons learned from a 1976 flu outbreak can help the country act wisely to combat the current spread of swine flu.
The president and other top administration officials met Tuesday with six experts on the 1976 flu so that — in his words — "we can further prepare the nation for the possibility of a more severe outbreak of H1N1 flu."
In 1976, a mass vaccination against a different swine flu was marred by reports of a paralyzing side effect — and that time the flu didn't spread beyond an outbreak at Fort Dix, N.J.
Among those meeting Tuesday with Obama was the president of the Institute of Medicine, Dr. Harvey Fineberg.
The Independent says that “the swine flu pandemic might not have happened had it not been for the accidental release of the same strain of influenza virus from a research laboratory in the late 1970s.” The news comes from a medical article which analysed the history of the influenza A H1N1 virus, including the recent development of swine flu seen around the world.
The reports say that the H1N1 influenza strain was responsible for a flu pandemic in 1977, but before this it had not been found in humans for more than 20 years. By looking at the genetic makeup of the 1977 virus, researchers have found that it was similar to a strain that was circulating in 1950. This 1950s strain would have been stored in labs and researchers have suggested that the re-emergence of the virus in 1977 “was probably an accidental release from a laboratory source”, possibly through laboratory workers becoming infected.
Professor John Oxford of the Royal London Hospital is reported as saying that the theory is “plausible”, but that “it may have been a good thing as it would have given many older people alive today some measure of immunity to the current pandemic.” The newspapers have concentrated on the possibility of an accidental reintroduction of the H1N1 virus during the 1970s. However, this is only one aspect of the complex history of the current pandemic swine flu virus discussed in the article. The current swine flu virus has developed over time by natural exchange of genetic material between human, bird and pig strains of the influenza virus. This review does not suggest that the current form was created in or leaked from a laboratory.
Where did the story come from?
The news story is based on a scientific article in the peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine by Dr Shanta M Zimmer and Dr Donald S Burke from the University of Pittsburgh. It was funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in the US and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
What kind of scientific study was this?
The study was a narrative review which described the history of the current swine-origin influenza A virus (H1N1) strain, commonly known as swine flu. The authors discussed the evolutionary and epidemiologic events that led to the emergence of the swine flu strain that caused the current pandemic.